|Gold medalist Rebecca Soni poses on the podium during the medal
ceremony for the women's 200m breaststroke final at the London
2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on Aug. 2, 2012 in
One year ago today, I swam my dream race in London — the Olympic final of the 200-meter breaststroke. It was the fifth day of swimming competition. A couple days ago I had won a silver medal in the 100m breaststroke, and just yesterday I swam prelims and semifinals of the 200. I was ready, I was nervous, I was confident to race that night. But there was something on my mind. One silly little number.
Since Beijing four years ago, I had been chasing my best time. Not only that, but there was a magic number in my head that had motivated me since I was a young swimmer — a girl whose coach pulled her aside and told her what he thought she could accomplish… that goal was 2:19. For 10 years since, I had a dream of being the first woman to break the 2:20 barrier, and though I had gotten close in Beijing (2:20.20) and my world record had since been lowered (2:20.10 by Annamay Pearse of Canada in 2009), I still had my sights set on that magic number.
I have been told that I don’t show enough excitement after my races. And the reason is that those races were good, but never been good enough! The night before, in semifinals, I reclaimed my world record and couldn’t help but laugh at the fate of seeing a 2:20.00 on that clock when I finished. So close!! As if there wasn’t enough pressure racing for a gold medal, I now had to keep my sights on going at least one hundredth of a second faster than I swam last night.
Somehow, I managed to get through the morning. I can’t remember the details but I’m sure it went something like this: Wake up and start feeling the butterflies, go to the dining hall for some breakfast, catch the bus over to the training pool, swim a little with my roommate Dana Vollmer, head back for some lunch and a nap, twiddle my thumbs, wait wait wait, get some coffee, and then, finally, team meeting and on to the competition pool. Once there, I went through the usual stretch and warm-up routine, then put on the lucky pink Arena suit before heading to the pre-race ready room. The entire time, that number rang around my head. This is it, I thought, my last chance at 2:19!
I knew I was prepared, ready and confident. Or so I kept telling myself. That feeling before you’re about to race, it’s one that swimmers dread because the nerves and anxiety, and yet we hunger for it year-in and year-out — for the passion, dedication, and pure love of the sport. Walking out to the blocks, I knew that I had two minutes and (hopefully) 19 seconds to fulfill my destiny. I had given thousands of hours in the pool to prepare for these two minutes; I had dedicated my life towards that little number that was now singing loud in my ears despite my pressing the imaginary mute button. And as I stepped up on the blocks, I knew the time had come: the time to stop thinking, stop worrying and to just swim.
Just focus on the water, this thing waiting in front of me that has been such a big part of my life. The way it reflected the lights from the ceiling as I looked over it with goggles on, the wavelessness that was such a calm and unnatural sight, yet it had the slightest ripple going across that long black line. This water is me; it’s my comfort zone and my home. Step up on the blocks, the buzzer sounds and we go through the laps until there’s only one more to go. I hear my coach, Dave, whistling from the stands. I think of four years ago, listening to that same whistle, when I surprised even myself to win my first Olympic gold medal. I think of my coach from when I was younger, Tom, who told me of the potential he saw. This was for you, for all of you — family, coaches, teammates, mentors, friends. I thought of anything but the race, and as we came towards that wall at the end, I knew I would win and what an exciting feeling to touch the wall, hear the crowd, and take the first free breath I had taken in a long time. Too scared to turn around just yet, I took a deep breath, then slowly looked at that clock to see if I had done what I wasn’t sure had even been possible.
But it was.
2:19.59. And that was finally good enough.
Rebecca Soni is an Olympic swimmer who has earned six medals across two Olympic Games. At the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Soni won gold in the 200-meter breaststroke and silver in the 100-meter breaststroke and 4x100-meter medley relay. Four years later, Soni repeated her golden performance in the 200-meter breaststroke in record-setting fashion. Soni's time of 2:20.00 in the semifinal set a new world record, which she then broke in the final with 2:19.59, becoming the first woman to break 2 minutes 20 seconds in the event and the first to defend Olympic gold in the 200-meter breaststroke. Soni also earned gold in the 4x100-meter medley relay and silver in the 100-meter breaststroke at the London 2012 Olympic Games.